Kelvin van der Linde and Team Abt Sportsline came back to resounding form at the opening DTM race in Hockenheim, playing the team game to perfection to grab first whilst third place went to teammate Mike Rockenfeller who came from seventeenth at the start. The result puts Van der Linde back to the top of the championship table albeit equal on points with Liam Lawson.
At the start Van der Linde got his away well in the #3 Audi R8 GT3 despite a strong challenge from Lucas Auer into turn 1 who had just edged ahead of the South African on the run down to the turn. Van der Linde was in no mood to compromise and taking a chunk of the inside kerb, he held on to his pole position and pushed the Mercedes back to second place.
With some barging in the mid-pack in the following corners, the first lap action came to a head at the hairpin.
Arjun Maini had got past Daniel Juncadella to take fourth and on the run to the hairpin attempted to take a further place from Liam Lawson. Lawson saw the Indian coming and gave him room but Lucas Auer was less fortunate and found himself T-boned as Maini was unable to slow his Getspeed Mercedes-AMG GT3 sufficiently to make the corner. Maini’s race was done and Auer dropped to the back of the field before retiring soon after as the safety car was deployed to clear up the debris.
At the restart it was Van der Linde and Max Götz alongside each other. Van der Linde was equally determined as he was at the start to keep first, claiming as much of the track as he could into turn one. Despite a strong challenge from Götz, Van der Linde held on to the lead and was away.
When the pit window opened, Götz, Lawson and Ellis all came in from second, third and fourth respectively, leaving Van der Linde to continue alone at the head of the field. Playing it safe, he pitted on the next lap and a solid stop put him back out on the track well in front of Götz in second place.
Further down the field, Marco Wittmann in the Walkenhorst BMW M6 GT3 was the one to run out of luck this weekend. Having struggled in qualifying resulting in a thirteenth starting place, Wittmann had to play the long game strategy to try and keep himself in the championship hunt, choosing to stay out as long as possible to improve on his lowly qualifying position.
The strategy was made harder when he got involved in Arjun Maini’s first lap accident, coming away with damage to the German’s car. A further coming together in the midst of the pack at the safety car restart meant he was even further on the back foot.
When the leaders caught up with him it was clear the Walkenhorst BMW was unhappy as the rest of the field made its way past the usually rapid German. With 12 minutes remaining, Wittmann retired the car which dropped him to third in the championship and 18 points behind the leaders.
With Van der Linde five seconds ahead at the front, the battle was for third between Götz and Lawson. In the current position, Lawson and Van der Linde would be equal on championship points so for Lawson, getting past Götz was a priority and with the German complaining to his team that his brakes had gone, it should only have been a matter of time for Lawson to grab the final podium spot.
With a minute plus 3 laps of the race remaining, Lawson made his move into the hairpin. Getting a better exit than Götz, Lawson was able to place himself on the inside for the following corner and despite a strong defence from the Mercedes driver, he had to cede the place to the Ferrari. Götz was clearly struggling and soon had Kelvin van der Linde’s teammate in the second Team Abt Sportsline Audi, Mike Rockenfeller, looming large in his mirrors.
Having started from seventeenth on the grid, Rockenfeller had gone almost to the end of the race before stopping but the strategy seemed to be working. Rejoining the race in twelveth place and with 10 minutes and 3 laps remaining, Rockenfeller put his fresher tyres to work and began his charge through the field. Within a couple of laps he made his way through the packed midfield and up to sixth behind Götz who he dispatched at the hairpin a lap after Lawson had got past the struggling Haupt Racing Team Mercedes.
The New Zealander in the Red Bull AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 was next in his sights and entering the last lap, Rockenfeller was on the back of Lawson. Rockenfeller attempted to duplicate his earlier move on Götz into the hairpin, but Lawson defended it well. Taking a wide line slowed Rocky enough to frustrate his exit from the turn but with better grip from his newer tyres, Rockenfeller drew level at turn 7 and looked to have the place. With the championship in his sights, Lawson fought back and had the inside line into turn 8 but Rocky was able to bully his way past the New Zealander who made his displeasure clear following the race, confronting the German in parc fermé.
For Van der Linde and Team Abt it was the perfect result and the culmination of an expertly executed strategy which puts Van der Linde and Lawson equal on points each with 188. Wittmann lost his second place in the championship and is now level with Götz for third place on 165 points.
Whilst only mathematically in the championship race, Alex Albon did his points standing no harm with a good second-place finish having progressed from ninth place on the grid in the AlphaTauri AF Corse Ferrari.
Race two is at 13:30 CEST on Sunday with qualifying at 10:20 CEST in the morning.
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